Slayer’s Statute

Fort Worth life insurance lawyers need to read this case on the Slayer’s Statute. The statute is found at Texas Insurance Code, Section 1103.151. The case is from the Houston Court of Appeals [14th Dist.]. It is styled, Rumbaut v. Labagnara.
Texas law disallows recovery of life insurance proceeds by a beneficiary who is a party to willfully causing the insured’s death. This case requires the court to decide whether gross negligence is subsumed within the notion of willfulness. The court held it is not.
Appellant’s wife Ana Maria Rumbaut was lost at sea, when a sudden storm arose in the Gulf of Mexico where the two of them were sailing. Because Mrs. Rumbaut’s will named appellant as executor of her estate, he applied for probate upon his return. Appellees, Mrs. Rumbaut’s sons by a previous marriage, contested the application and alleged that appellant had willfully caused their mother’s death.
The central dispute at trial focused on appellant’s inexperience as a boatsman: he had only six hours of sailing time before he and his wife set out for Cozumel on their new craft. She had none. He testified that she had been swept overboard during a storm, and that his rescue efforts (later assisted by the Coast Guard) were unavailing. Appellees questioned appellant’s recitation of events as inconsistent and extremely suspicious. They took the position that his conduct in making the trip amounted at the very least to gross negligence, given the couple’s virtually nonexistent nautical skills. In its charge to the jury the trial court inquired whether appellant had willfully caused his wife’s death. The jury answered in the affirmative, and the court awarded appellees the $750,000 in life insurance proceeds.
At the heart of this appeal is whether the court properly defined “willfully” in its charge. That definition reads:
The term “willfully” as used in this charge may mean that the person alleged to have brought about the death of another person either desired to bring about the physical results of his act or believed that they were substantially certain to follow from what he did.
or “Willfully” as used in this charge may mean more than intentional conduct which results from momentary thoughtlessness, inadvertence or error of judgment. It means an act or conduct committed without justification which demonstrates such an entire want of care as to indicate that the act or conduct complained of was the result of conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the persons affected by it.

The statute in effect when the relevant events took place provided as follows:
The interest of a beneficiary in a life insurance policy or contract heretofore or hereafter issued shall be forfeited when the beneficiary is the principal or an accomplice in willfully bringing about the death of the insured. When such is the case, the nearest relative of the insured shall receive said insurance.
Because the definition given was incorrect, the court needed not examine its unusual structure, namely the disjunctive construction. The inquiry does not end here, however, because appellant argues that the evidence is legally insufficient to find him culpable within the meaning of the statute. If the court agrees that no evidence supports a finding of willfulness, then it must reverse and render; on the other hand, if there exists any evidence in favor of the verdict–even though factually insufficient–the court must reverse and remand.
The question is not an easy one. Plainly, the only person who could furnish eyewitness testimony is appellant himself, and he flatly denied any intent to cause his wife’s death. But because his testimony is contrary to the verdict, the court cannot consider it. Instead it must examine only those portions of the evidence which support the jury’s finding. Application of this standard in its customary formulation presents us with a dilemma: either the court relies on various snippets of circumstantial evidence (such as the high magnitude of insurance coverage), or it holds in essence that since appellant’s version of the shipboard events was the only one presented to the jury, the law forbids the jury to disbelieve him and requires a verdict in his favor. To put it another way, for the court to sustain appellant’s legal insufficiency challenge it must hold that, on this record, reasonable minds could not conclude appellant was untruthful in his recitation of events. Yet the law recognizes the fact-finder as the sole determiner of credibility. An appellate court simply lacks the capacity to judge the believability of witnesses. Here that distinction becomes critical, because appellant’s veracity is the linchpin of the litigation.
The establishment of a culpable mental state is commonly done by use of circumstantial evidence, as known from criminal jurisprudence.
The most obvious aspect of such proof is the couple’s nautical background: they had virtually no sailing experience yet launched off into the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season. Appellees then adduced evidence of financial motivation by showing that appellant owed over $200,000 on his house and nearly that amount on the boat. This indebtedness pales in comparison with the $750,000 of life insurance coverage. When asked how he could afford to make payments on the house and the boat, appellant testified that he could not, especially given that he had since quit work. As to the voyage itself, appellees sought in essence to make out a case of a preplanned accident waiting for a place to happen. For example, there was testimony that appellant’s wife had limited swimming skills. And appellant stated that the boat’s life lines were not working properly before the voyage. He knew this posed enough of a problem to call for remedial measures, but no one made the appropriate repairs; he himself tried to fix the lines before departure, but without success. In addition, appellant could not recall ever having familiarized himself with use of the ship’s autopilot, a device which became significant when the decedent went overboard. According to his testimony, difficulty in adjusting the autopilot resulted in a spatial separation between the boat and the decedent such that he could never relocate his wife.
The court believed these circumstances constitute some evidence from which the jury could have found as it did. The court reversed the judgment and remanded the cause for new trial.

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